Matt Carpenter is on the verge of signing a six-year contract with the Cardinals expected to be worth more than $50 million. (File)

By Rob Rains

JUPITER, Fla. – Matt Carpenter is on the verge of signing a lucrative contract with the Cardinals - which might never have been possible if not for a meeting in the office of TCU baseball coach Jim Schlossnagle in late January 2007.

Carpenter was a junior at the school at the time and had just learned he had a torn ligament in his right elbow, necessitating Tommy John surgery, which was going to force him to miss the season, the year in which he had expected to be selected in the baseball draft.

While his baseball future was in doubt because of the injury, other aspects of Carpenter’s life were not all that great either.

“He was always a dirt bag and played hard and had a good feel for the game, but when he wasn’t on the field he was like a lot of kids when they come to college,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said Friday over the telephone from his office on the school’s campus in Fort Worth. “He didn’t have his life in order, whether it was academically, socially, in the weight room. He was kind of a mess away from the field.”

Schlossnagle, who had recruited Carpenter just after becoming the TCU coach over more established programs Baylor and Texas, estimates he had at least a dozen meetings with Carpenter during his first two and a half years in school trying to correct those problems, hoping to get him to apply his attitude about baseball to the rest of his life.

“He did well on the baseball field but he wasn’t performing like the guy we had recruited him to be,” Schlossnagle said. “He had no power and modest numbers. He was a good player but he wasn’t the player he should be, and we were always having issues away from the field.”

When Schlossnagle called Carpenter into that meeting, he wanted Rick and Tammy Carpenter, Matt’s parents, to be there too. He still remembers exactly what he said.

“I said ‘Listen man, I’ve been telling you for two and a half years that you need to get your life right away from the baseball field. Here’s an opportunity,’” Schlossnagle said. “He was really upset that he was not going to be with the team, and that the draft was not going to work out that year. All his buddies his age were going to be signing and gone.

“I said, ‘You can pout about this or you can look at this as an opportunity where baseball is not going to be that much a part of your life. You can focus on school, your diet, the weight room and clean up your social life.’

“As a college coach you have that conversation all the time. You have guys that don’t listen to you and you have guys that gradually change. What Matt did that no other player I have had has done was he literally went 180 degrees on the spot. The next day you could tell he had made a commitment and he literally was like a different human being in 24 hours."

More than seven years later, and with Carpenter about to sign a six-year contract with the Cardinals reportedly worth more than $50 million, Schlossnagle knows that meeting came at the moment Carpenter’s life was at a crossroads.

“He could have never played baseball again,” he said. “Considering the state of his body and his GPA and all that stuff he could have continued to go down the path he was going on and maybe graduate and go be an assistant coach for his dad’s high school team. But he didn’t. He truly bought into everything that we stand for and everything he wanted to be. Now you are seeing the results.”

Schlossnagle estimates Carpenter lost 40 pounds as he changed his diet, eating only salads and grilled chicken, with water to drink. His GPA went up a full point, above 3.0. He was the first person in the weight room. It took that injury, and the lecture from Schlossnagle, for that change to happen.

Carpenter knows that better than anybody.

“It was the turning point,” Carpenter admitted again on Friday. “I had to either make that adjustment or not. I had to come to terms with what was going on.”

In an earlier interview, Carpenter said he knows that his life could have been dramatically different if not for his reaction to that meeting.

“I knew I was living my life in way that I was not supposed to be doing,” Carpenter said in a 2012 interview. “That was the moment where I decided to get back in the Word (the Bible) and got back to living how I was supposed to live and get back to doing what I was supposed to be doing.

“It’s no coincidence that was when my career kind of took off. There is no question in my mind that I would not be where I am today if that had not happened. Everything I went through that year was for a reason.”

Schlossnagle knows it too.

“He matured immensely during his time here, not just into a good player but just a tremendous person, a leader,” he said. “In his last two and a half years here he was the poster boy for our program and what we stand for. I couldn’t be happier for him.”

Despite cleaning up his life, earning his degree in communications, and turning in good results on the field, Carpenter’s draft stock still was not very promising as a fifth-year college senior.

“Scouts could tell he was kind of a baseball rat, dirt-bag type of player, but there were no plus tools,” Schlossnagle said. “He didn’t have raw power. He had a good arm but not a great arm. Scouts liked him, but he was also 23 years old. To the Cardinals credit they saw a baseball player and gave him a chance.”

The Cardinals did not take much of a risk in drafting Carpenter. He was the 399th overall pick in the 2009 draft, selected in the 13th round. As a senior with virtually no bargaining power, Carpenter signed for a $1,000 bonus and a plane ticket to Batavia, N.Y. in the short-season New York-Penn League.

“Beyond that, it’s been all Matt and his makeup and plate discipline, his ability to play multiple positions and just his work ethic has proven itself out,” Schlossnagle said.

Carpenter has remained loyal to the TCU program. He and his wife Mackenzie bought their first house this off-season – across the street from center field at Lupton Stadium.

“This off-season he was in our weight room every day, in the cages every day and in the clubhouse every day,” Schlossnagle said. “Our current players get sick and tired of hearing about Matt Carpenter. I’ve been talking about him long before he was a major-league All-Star.

“The great thing is because he’s had so much success on the field I don’t have to tell the story because our players see it live and in person. Our guys know him. He talks to the team formally and informally. If I have a player who is in the position he used to be in, I say, ‘Carp, can you grab that guy and have a conversation with him?’ Our players seek him out. He’s not my son but I certainly have those kinds of feelings for him.

“I am just so proud of him and so happy for him.”

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